Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Plight of Nelson Algren: Is Someone Secretly Stopping Your Book Sales?



Jonathan Dee related in his New Yorker piece, "Nelson Algren’s Street Cred: [...] Algren became one of the most celebrated novelists of his era. Why did he disappear into obscurity?", that Ernest Hemingway referred to Algren as the “beat Dostoyevsky”.

Algren, a "proletarian naturalist poet" and novelist, had "fanboys" who included Terry Southern, Russell Banks, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon who, of Algren, said, “is behind a great deal of what I do”.


Dee shared that Colin Asher wrote in Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren that Algren's:

[...] first novel, “Somebody in Boots” (originally titled “Native Son”: his good friend Richard Wright’s book of that name hadn’t been written yet), sold a meagre seven hundred and sixty copies, failing to earn back its two-hundred-dollar advance. Many first novels tank in this way, and many first novelists are despondent as a result, but twenty-six-year-old Algren—in what would be a harbinger of how he handled perceived failures later in life—took the blow particularly hard, and tried at least once to commit suicide. 

His friends feared for his sanity. Invited to New York to address the first-ever American Writers’ Congress, Algren stood shaking at the lectern, mumbling the same sentences over and over, which gradually became audible: “My book was a failure. Please buy my book.” [...]

[...] Algren’s late-career slide into irrelevance, Asher says, was no impartial operation of fashion or taste but the result of an orchestrated plot by Hoover’s F.B.I. to silence him, at the peak of the McCarthy era. What’s more, the plot itself, in Asher’s telling, was the direct result of a gratuitous insult Algren inserted into “The Man with the Golden Arm”—mockingly employing the surnames of two known turncoats who had identified, sometimes for money, many former friends and colleagues as members of the Communist Party. 

Incensed, the two men sought revenge by naming Algren to the F.B.I. and to the House Un-American Activities Committee, prompting an investigation that turned Algren into a pariah and sabotaged his career. 

But “they operated in secret,” Asher writes, “so Algren blamed himself when his life began falling apart. He presumed the paranoia and depression that began to cripple him in the nineteen-fifties were the result of personal weakness, and decided his books were not being published because no one wanted to read them.”